Chapter 20 – Skyfall
Vincent and Illexmann, now dismounted, walked into the ring of scorched devastation where Wan Ting waited. The magician genius balanced like a sentinel atop a large ridge of rock. Besides Wan Ting, nothing lived in the scorched area of devastation. As Vincent and Illexmann approached, the wind continued to tear scraps of incinerated vegetation into ever smaller fragments. The air stung and burned, hazy with a dull cloud of acid and ash.
The Deathly Powers observed one another impassively like a pair of strangers whose eyes had met across a crowded room, trying to decide whether or not to tango. Illexmann's expression, never warm to begin with, was particularly grim. The Lijk's face was frozen in a death rictus. Vincent maintained his casual smirk, but his cloak began to twitch nervously as the necromancer observed his opponent, betraying his unease.
Opposing them, Wan Ting's genial expression and sombre, unostentatious dress made him seem little more than a court musician, yet the man had somehow survived the combined attack of two zombie dragons. Wan Ting's gazed swept across Vincent placidly, and the young necromancer suddenly felt like a kitten under the shadow of a hawk.
"So you are Wan Ting," said Vincent, looking his archenemy up and down appraisingly. "I thought you'd be taller."
Wan Ting blinked once, slowly, as he took the measure of his opponents. He raised his hands, deliberate taking his time to adjust his sleeves. Vincent stared at Wan Ting's hands intently. One sleeve was tattered and marred by the dragon's poison, and shallow, fresh wounds of an ugly shade dotted the magician's wrist.
The corner of Vincent's mouth twitched upward fractionally and his heart quickened. It seemed that not even Wan Ting could emerge unscathed from the initial attack.
"My enemies have finally crawled out of the woodwork," said Wan Ting, his voice depthless as a still lake. "Illexmann, my old acquaintance, I knew you were my enemy as soon as you rejected the pact of non-aggression. But it appears I misjudged you. I was certain that you had decided to hide and flee. Why do you now oppose me?"
Vincent cast a suspicious glance at the Lijk.
"You know Wan Ting?" the necromancer asked.
~I know him better than I know you,~ replied the Lijk, never taking his eyes off the magician genius. ~We are the collective masters of magic. How could we not be on familiar terms?~
"Yet you bar my way," said Wan Ting. "You antagonise me for no reasonable gain. What ally has given you such courage?"
~You can't expect to go unchallenged, Wan Ting,~ replied Illexmann. ~Your arrogant plan has drawn attention from many hidden powers.~
Wan Ting pressed his lips into a thin line. "Who is fighting the Vermilion Angel? Is it Mkholed? Or, by some unlikely chance, Ahura Mainyu? I don't fear either of them."
~The wise man fears the Fool,~ said Illexmann, and his fleshless lips parted in a humourless grin.
Wan Ting raised an eyebrow. For the first time, the magician genius seemed to lose some of his composure. "Then you shall not bar my way. Stand aside, Illexmann. Go home."
"Don't be stupid!" cried Vincent, as the Melodies of Magic writhed and twisted about his arms. "This is the showdown. We're going to kill you here."
~Hush up, boy,~ snapped Illexmann.
Wan Ting turned and seemed to become aware of Vincent for the first time. A few seconds passed while he scrutinised the young man. "Of course, I should have realised. You ride the Zombie Dragon of the Kaltic Moutains. You are Sarragin Vich's successor. Forgive me for my oversight. Your aura was so… subtle… that I mistook you for Illexmann's apprentice."
The magician genius bowed low in mocking irony.
"You're pissing me off, old man," said Vincent. "Illexmann, cover me. I'm going in to kill him."
~No,~ commanded Illexmann. A skeletal hand lashed out, knocking Vincent back a few steps with his staff. Caught off balance, the young necromancer stumbled out of the circle. ~Wan Ting is not someone you can defeat.~
"What the hell was that for!" exclaimed Vincent. "Together! We have the power."
Illexmann laughed. The sound of his ally's dry laughter was more devastating than Wan Ting's ridicule. ~Stay out of this fight. If you step within this circle, I can't guarantee your safety. In fact, boy, I'll do the opposite. I'll guarantee your death.~
"No, don't you dare underestimate me," raged Vincent. The Bereavement rippled around him like an underground rapids, burning from embarrassment and outrage. "You'll regret it."
~Sit down and shut the hell up, boy!~ snarled Illexmann with more venom than Vincent had ever heard him inflect before.
The young necromancer's eyes dilated in barely restrained anger. He felt ready to explode. How dare that old man talk to him like this?
Illexmann stepped forward, utterly ignoring Vincent. A surge of magic bubbled forth from the Lijk like dense foam, and innumerable thin, grey shadows streamed out of his body to circle mournfully about him. The sudden pressure was stifling. It felt as though the raging maelstrom of magic above the cursed citadel of Teufelsheim was concentrated about the Lijk. The shadows took on strange, fleeting forms, soothing to the eye, but painful on the soul. The Melodies about Illexmann sang of sorrows, regrets, fears. Pride is temporary, they seemed to whisper, pride is temporary, but pain is forever.
In response, Wan Ting pulled out a thin, ivory flute. "Dragon's wingbone," the magician genius explained unnecessarily, putting it to his lips. He began to play.
His tune, ethereal and majestic, stirred a magical storm into existence. The summoned Melodies of Magic, resplendent gold, whirled around Wan Ting, fawning, adoring, recognising his genius, but never once did he let them touch him. He played, ineffable, in the eye of the raging storm. Not a hair stirred on his head, while all around him ash, grass, and even rocks were plucked from the ground and sent dancing to his tune.
"This is the manifestation of my power," said Wan Ting, hiding away his flute at last. "It grants me absolute power over myself, my opponent, even the surroundings. I call it State Space Control. What is the name of your power?"
~Infinite shades of grey,~ said the Lijk.
Vincent gaped despite his previous anger, feeling like a child in the presence of grown men. The Deathly Powers gravitated towards each other like continents on a collision course.
The magician genius eased himself into a fighting stance, and his hands began to twist like snakes in water. An aura of liquid gold rippled about Wan Ting's palms as they moved, and space began to bend to his will. With deft steps, the magician genius flowed from one stance to another, and the world flowed with him.
Illexmann held his ground, impassive as though he had been petrified. The Lijk held his staff forbiddingly before him, and the grey of stone and smoke and steel wrapped around him like armour.
~You cannot pass,~ said the Lijk.
"I go where I please," replied Wan Ting.
There was a dizzying surge of power, and then Wan Ting was upon the Lijk, raining innumerable strikes on the latter. The Lord of the Deathly September moved with blinding speed. The air burned in a heat haze in every place Wan Ting's palms connected. Like a pack of wolves, the magician's magic clawed the Lijk out of position, creating weaknesses in Illexmann's perfect defence. Wan Ting connected with every single savage blow, yet somehow his palms always met either indifferent smoke or unyielding stone. In contrast to Wan Ting, the Lijk moved like a man drowning in treacle, blocking or dodging perhaps one in every ten strikes. Their opposing Melodies warred and burst upon each other in a symphony of oil and liquid gold.
"The old man is getting thrashed," yelled Vincent to himself. The necromancer could barely see, let alone follow the blur of battle. "He's getting hit hundreds of times."
"Don't!" warned Will sharply, seeing that Vincent was about to join the battle.
"I can do it," said Vincent, licking his lips uncertainly.
"If State Space Control was upon you, you could not dodge a single one," remarked Will. "The Lijk is doing well, considering the strength of his opponent."
"Wan Ting fights incredibly," said Vincent. "I would not have believed it possible for such an old man. He's as fast as I am…almost."
"If you had eyes swift enough, you would see," replied Will. "Wan Ting's fighting style is unsurpassed in its beauty. Every strike flows naturally into the other, like a series of endless brushstrokes. Wan Ting is at an inhuman level of perfection. State Space Control may be the name of his magic, but his killing movements have been dubbed 'the Endless Waltz'."
As Vincent and Will watched, Wan Ting threw his palms out from behind his neck, arcing outwards and in again towards his opponent like twin crescent blades. The Lijk tried to react, but failed to block either. Wan Ting's magic sheared away at the Lijk's aura down to a fraction of an inch before being repelled.
Illexmann shuddered. The magician genius seized Illexmann's arm, twisted his opponent a quarter circle, and struck thrice with the same fist at the Lijk's exposed armpit, hip and thigh before his opponent could break away once again. Dazzling droplets of gold flashed out in a starburst at each stroke before they vanished into Illexmann's impenetrable grey. As Wan Ting gained the measure of his opponent, the Endless Waltz increased steadily in force and savagery, completely controlling the tempo of the battle.
Vincent gnawed at his lip in frustration. "Why isn't Illexmann striking back? He'll lose at this rate."
"The Lijk's Aspect is Security. His aura grants him a perfect defence, but he cannot attack effectively alone. Can't you see what Illexmann is doing? He is trying to wear Wan Ting out. In time, a weakness may appear, and then you must be ready for it. Wan Ting will not know what form your magic takes. Destroy him in one stroke the moment you see him vulnerable."
Vincent's eyes trembled in their sockets as they struggled to keep pace with the magician's movements. Twice, Vincent twitched, nearly summoning his magic in response to a perceived weakness, but Wan Ting's defence remained flawless.
"Don't be impatient," warned Will. "Illexmann is counting on you for that perfect strike. Wait, wait for that moment. If you are caught in Wan Ting's magic, everything is over."
The Gamma Engine shattered the defensive walls of Ehrenfeld like a child destroying a house of cards. The machine's massive shoulders crashed through stone and mortar with explosive force, raining rubble down onto the city. Soldiers atop the wall lost all purchase and plunged screaming to the ground fifty feet below.
Fully half the length of the city wall was under attack. The dead soldiers of the Deathly September scaled the wall with ancient grappling hooks and gruesome ladders of bone and sinew. Despite the best efforts of the defenders, the dead had begun to gain purchase in several sections of the wall. The elite soldiers of Prince Charming's original force were too thinly spread to hold back the dead, and the battle started to exact its gruesome toll.
A great shriek of steam escaped from the Gamma Engine as it shouldered its bulk through the walls. Its inhuman expression of triumph echoed off the buildings of the embattled city, sending despair into the hearts of its defenders. But no sooner had it passed halfway through that the ground caved in beneath its forefeet. The loosened earth betrayed its great weight as its feet plunged into the great holes dug for its downfall.
The Gargantuan smashed against the ground with a resounding crash. The earth shuddered, and a great section of the machine's underbelly splintered under its own weight. No amount of armor could have guarded it against itself.
Prince Charming screamed an order. Charming's Champions reacted with a bold charge. Within moments, the section of wall between him and the Gamma Engine was swept clear of walking dead. The prince himself made a dash for the paralyzed machine, heedless of the flying rubble and fresh corpses that lay in his way.
On cue, the ancient cannon, manned by Lt. Colonel Sanders, fired a point blank shot at the Gargantuan's armoured skull with a resounding boom. The cannon was the final piece of the plan, as the heavy gun was the only thing deemed strong enough to penetrate the Engine's metallic hide. With a direct blow to the head, the defenders of Ehrenfeld hoped to kill the artificial consciousness that guided the great machine.
But the cannonball only bounced off the Gargantuan's armour, deflected by the maze of horny frills and ridges that hampered a direct blow.
Sensing its imminent peril, the great machine began to shudder violently, trying to throw off its tormentors. The stone and rubble of the walls shook with it, becoming a death trap of animated stone. Prince Charming was thrown off his feet, and only a thin parapet prevented him from being hurled off the wall altogether.
"It's breaking free!" screamed Eric.
Standing beside the cannon, Lt. Colonel Sanders was faced with an impossible situation. The old cannon had proved as unreliable as he had suspected, venting a large fraction of its explosion into the faces of its crew and losing most of its expected power. Half of its crew lay about it, dead or wounded. His first shot had been fired to no effect, and it did not seem like he would get a third.
"If we fire again at normal charge, we don't stand a chance of stopping that monster," mused the lieutenant colonel. "But if we use the special composition, we'll almost certainly blow ourselves up to no effect."
The officer's face was blackened with soot, and his once lustrous moustache had been singed off. The surviving men stared at him with a hollow resignation in their eyes. They could not decide which they feared more, the monster they were trying to kill or the weapon they were trying to kill it with.
"The question now is," muttered Lt. Colonel Sanders, looking at the two packages of black powder before him, "original recipe or extra crispy?"
Prince Charming looked up just as a second, greater explosion ripped the ancient cannon apart, taking Ehrenfeld's hopes with it. No one could have survived that blast, and the cannonball had not even emerged. He shook his head in incredulous grief. Recklessness borne of desperation had caused the brave men manning the cannon to kill themselves.
Boris was beside the prince, helping him to his feet. "He knew the risk, Charming. The lieutenant colonel died a soldier."
"What now?" asked Jacob, his expression blank with shock. The skinny knight's sword hung slackly from his hand in defeat. "We've lost the means to take down the machine."
"Not quite," said Prince Charming. "We've still got me."
The prince charged along the shivering wall, advancing swiftly upon the crippled machine. Nothing could stand against him as he closed the distance in several swift strides, cutting down the foes that dared stand to in his path. Redemption burned like twin beacons in his hands, bright as the noonday sun.
There was a sharp abyss between where the crumbling wall ended and the Gargantuan began. Prince Charming leapt the distance without a moment's hesitation. He struck heavily at the Engine's flanks, as Redemption's hooks tore great rents into the Behemoth's metallic skin. Prince Charming gritted his teeth as the impact nearly jarred him off the Engine entirely. Slowly but steadily, the prince began to claw his way up the heaving machine.
The Gargantuan gave a great metallic spasm, and the interlocking silver and bone plates on its flank ground against each other terrifyingly. Prince Charming screamed as his right hook lost purchase on the machine and he was flung half a foot from its body. The pain was excruciating. For a few heart stopping moments, Prince Charming dangled by a single arm over the edge of the abyss. The prince fought against the Gargantuan's monstrous momentum, lashing out and regaining his purchase at last.
"Charming!" screamed Boris from the wall, as the knights witnessed all their hopes embodied by the efforts of their leader. There was no time for him to spectate, however, as a fresh wave of undead scrambled over the battlements and attempted to sweep the defenders aside.
After what seemed like an eternity, Prince Charming at last drew level with the top of the Gargantuan's massive armoured shoulder. He vaulted the last few feet and found himself on relatively level ground at last. His body was awash with sweat, and every inch of his arms burned with exertion. It was a wonder that they hadn't been torn off in the last few moments.
The Gargantuan heaved violently and Prince Charming stumbled to his hands and knees, bruising himself against its unyielding exterior. Gritting his teeth, the prince forced himself back to his feet.
The difference in power between the Gargantuan and the previous Delta Engine struck the prince at that moment. While the Dreadnought had been a terrifying entity in its own right, it was nothing compared to this new Engine, which had very nearly defeated him without even registering his existence. He felt like an insect atop an elephant. At a different time, the prince might even have taken the time to marvel at the superlative genius that had given birth to such infernal devices. Right now, he only hoped that this would be the last, strongest machine.
All errant thoughts were forced from his mind, however, as he discovered what awaited him atop the monster.
A young woman sat atop the Gargantuan, perched atop a knobbly protrusion of silver and bone as casually as if she were at a lawn party. Nixia was dressed in a flowing gown of green and gold that alternately clung tight to and fluttered loose from her body. She was barefoot, as though she had impulsively kicked her shoes aside sometime earlier in the morning, and seemed oblivious to the destruction that raged all around her. Her beautiful eyes were fixed directly Prince Charming, and her warm smile froze uncertainly at the look of shock on his face.
"Aixin," choked Prince Charming, stopping short several paces before his younger sister.
All power seemed to drain from his voice as he acknowledged the figure seated before him. Although it had been over twenty years since he had last seen her face, the reality of her was unmistakeable. The world around him crumbled until she was the only thing that existed. "My little lost sister."
Nixia was marginally more composed. "Well, this isn't too much of a surprise, seeing you here, Charming," replied Nixia. Her brow furrowed slightly, speaking volumes of a well-concealed sadness, or perhaps uncertainty. "I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see your face, but now that I have, I'm glad you came. It's been a long time, brother. You're older and more mature now. I like your new look."
She tapped at the Gargantuan with the ball of her right foot, and its agonized trembling ceased abruptly. The fallen princess favoured the prince with a tragic smile.
His sister's face and the nature of what she had become worked its way deep into Prince Charming's heart. Although his mind had believed the ghost council's prophecy, his heart had always held on to some bitter hope. The sight of her sitting before him pierced him to the core of his being, causing the bitterness to come leaking out of his eyes.
"All these years, I thought you were dead! Seeing you like this, the feeling is impossible." Prince Charming stood petrified. His eyes never left Nixia's face, while tides of emotion surged and warred within him and never once broke through to the surface.
"Please relax, otherwise I don't know I'm going to meet you," said Nixia gently. She was sad too, but happy as well, with the happiness and sadness of seeing before your eyes something you had loved once but had lost the power to possess. As she spoke, she spread her arms wide. "It's good to see you alive, brother. Come, give your little sister a hug."
The prince sheathed Redemption and stumbled forth on leaden legs towards his sister. With each step, doubt and desire grew stronger until he felt like nothing more than a rag doll being fought over by a pair of squabbling children. At last one of them won and he sagged down into Nixia's arms.
Nixia gasped involuntarily as Prince Charming drew her into a tight, emotional hug, crushing her against his chest. "Easy on the armour," she murmured.
"Mother missed you so much," said Prince Charming. "I missed you."
"Aw, I missed you too, brother," said Nixia, patting the back of her brother head. "Thank goodness, I didn't want to fight you at all. Now I have found you at last, and you can help me take the throne and kill that Righteous bastard."
Prince Charming pulled away slowly, holding his sister at arm's length. "No. Stop this madness, Aixin. You must not allow this war to go on any further."
Nixia's face took on an expression of dismay and confusion. "What are you saying, brother? Aren't you going to help me win this war? I'm your sister. I'm the rightful queen."
Prince Charming trembled. "I know your story from the Ghost Council. Righteous betrayed you and sold us all out to Wan Ting in exchange for the throne. I know the pain you've endured, and how much you want back everything that has been taken from you. But this is not the way, Aixin. Don't walk this path any further."
"The people love me," insisted Nixia. "At Kleindorf, they welcomed me with flowers, and little children came forth to kiss me and braid my hair. They say I ended the plagues that infested their land due to their wrongful allegiance to the usurper. They accept me as the rightful queen, so why don't you?"
"The people hate and fear you," replied Prince Charming. "How can you be so blind? You're a Deathly Power, Aixin. And you're destroying your own country. You are the cause of the plagues that wreak such devastation. Your soldiers know nothing except how to kill the people whom you should be loving and protecting."
"Wan Ting understands. Why can't you be like Wan Ting? He loves me. He made me strong, and he's helping me get everything I deserve. Why can't you join me? Three of us together, we can set the world right again. When this is over, brothers will never betray sisters again. I will be queen of the One Republic, and Wan Ting will be king of the Deathly Powers, and there will never be war again."
"Wan Ting is using you," said Prince Charming sadly. "That's what Wan Ting does. The only thing he cares about is power, and this time, the One Republic is his prize. He tricked our brother and set all this in motion. You mustn't let him use you, too."
The fallen princess shook her head agitatedly. "Please, brother. Let's go somewhere quiet. We'll talk about this for a day, maybe more. You've never met Wan Ting, have you? You'll like him once you get to know him. You'll understand. You'll see it our way, I know you will."
Nixia stared into Prince Charming's colourless eyes longingly, searching for a sign that he might be swayed, but her brother's eyes held nothing but unfathomable love and unwavering conviction.
"Sister," said Prince Charming, in a voice of mingled hope and despair. "While you still hear my voice, and treasure my words and advice. While we are friends, and can talk, and not fight, please, listen to me. Renounce your tainted power."
Nixia squeezed her eyes shut in anguish as a surge of emotion threatened to overcome her.
"Renounce your tainted power," said Prince Charming.
"No!" cried Nixia suddenly, in a voice suffused with hurt and betrayal. She wrested herself free of Prince Charming's grasp and scrambled to her feet. "You hate me, brother? Is it because of what I am? You see me as a monster? You don't love me anymore!"
"Aixin!" shouted Prince Charming in grief and alarm, aware that she was slipping inexorably out of his grasp. He sprang to his feet.
"Don't come any closer!" shouted Nixia, lashing out at him with her magic. Thin green bolts, the extension of her will, materialised from her fingertips and darted towards the prince.
Instinctively, Prince Charming crossed his arms to shield himself from the attack. The same white glow in his arms that had saved his life in the battle against Jack Black protected him once again and Nixia's impulsive attack dissipated in a shower of sparks and ozone.
The prince's defensive act served only to incense Nixia further.
"You dare fight me!" cried the fallen princess. "You have no idea!"
Nixia unleashed the full force of her power upon her brother. Great, thorny vines materialised around the prince and drew themselves tight around him. Prince Charming screamed out in sudden agony as Nixia's power overcame his own, shredding his armour like it was nothing but paper and digging deep into the flesh of his body.
"I am the throne's rightful heir and you know that," said Nixia, almost in tears. With her magic, she carried the prince to the edge of the Gargantuan. "I don't understand. Why don't you support me? You, of all people! I trusted you! I came to find you! I thought you would understand. Why don't you understand? You betray me, Charming? You betray me, too?"
Despite the pain coursing through his veins, Prince Charming forced himself to speak. For a brief moment he stopped struggling, locking eyes with the one he could not reach. "No matter who you are, no matter what you do, you will always be my little sister," said Prince Charming. "Aixin, I love you."
A shadow of absolute desolation streaked across Nixia's face. She burst into tears.
"No, you don't!" screamed Nixia. She hurled her brother off the Gargantuan, letting him fall into the heart of the undead army below.
"State Space Control is a wonderful idea, beautiful in its simplicity. Basic concept: every environment can be simplified into a set of variables known as its state. If one has full knowledge of a state at any point in time, one can perfectly tailor one's exertion of force and magic and thus gain full control of the resultant states of the environment. It promises absolute control over any battlefield and any opponent, so long as the right conditions are met.
Like all wonderful ideas, the actual implementation is highly technical. One ends up needing 'linear quadratic regulators', 'observers' and 'Kalman filters' and it becomes increasingly complicated the more powerful and comprehensive you want it to be. It is no wonder that in the entire history of the Common Lands, there is only one man who can be said to have mastered it."
"The Aspect of Security's Infinite Shades of Grey is no less powerful. It is well titled for many reasons. It creates a shifting aura that blends the defensive attributes of smoke and stone, causing an enemy's attacks to alternately hit nothing or everything or anything in between.
This combination of the impregnable and the untouchable throws off an opponent's natural rhythm, as the latter can never guess whether his attacks will pass through or be turned aside. Recklessness is punished. Caution is punished. The attacker causes nothing but torment to himself. The fluctuating defence induces increasing doubt on the attacker, eventually robbing him of all strength."
-Liber Necronomics, by Sarragin Vich